Billions of bacteria living in your digestive system play a key role in how well you age, your cardiovascular health, obesity — even whether you get a good night’s sleep.
By Deedra Mason, N.D., Director of Clinical Education and Research
Scientific research is revealing the importance of the gut, its bacterial inhabitants (our microbiome) and how they communicate via the genetic code in their DNA. We are the beneficiaries of their diversity and functionality. They have about 500 times the number of genes humans do, and we are complex! Our success as a species is in part because we have hijacked the genes found in our gut biota, capitalizing on their ability to harvest energy, modify a stress response and even create vitamins and important fatty acids for metabolic balance.
To help maintain our overall good physical and mental health, we need to understand and maintain the health of the microbiome in our gut. The relationship between nutrient synthesis, gut biota and achieving REM sleep is more intimate than you think. While many adults accept changes in body composition, energy, sexual function and mobility as natural parts of aging, a simple approach to improved gut health is both within our control and can significantly improve many of these quality-of-life and aging factors.
Start with a diet rich in colorful, fermentable foods. Limit processed foodstuffs, reduce exposure to environmental toxins, emphasize physical activity, avoid stress and get enough sleep. All of those factors have something in common: They support the optimal environment for healthy gut bugs that in turn help synthesize vitamins D, K and the B vitamins. Normal bacterial intestinal biofilms promote nutrient absorption and help eliminate unhealthy factors. This affects every system in your body, helping to promote energy levels, good mood, a healthy weight, mental clarity and proper immune function.
Gut biota have two broad biological phyla, or classifications: the Bacteroidetes and the Firmicutes. An excess of the Firmicutes may lead to increased weight, mental lethargy and overall decline in our systemic health. Conversely, with Bacteroidetes in dominance we see a more slender frame, improved energy metabolism and better cardio-metabolic health.
Research including clinical trials indicates that proper foods and probiotic/prebiotic sources can have a positive effect. In a 2011 study from Nature Reviews Endocrinology, researchers revealed evidence that increasing beneficial Bacteroidetes and decreasing “flabby Fermicutes” could influence weight and potential metabolic risk factors.
Colonies of gut bacteria dictate how and where the fuel we take in is stored and if it is predominantly a triglyceride or a low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol). A follow-up study looked at diets that support increasing Bacteroidetes. A diet rich in plant fiber and healthy short-chain fatty acids from legumes and some fats is shown to not just increase Bacteroidetes, but also improve the way the body harvests energy. Specifically, L. rhamnosus improves appetite sensations, eating and emotion-related behaviors, thus lending support to the hypothesis that the gut-brain axis may affect appetite control and weight management.
The tendency seen in many adults as they age, or in individuals of any age when they do not eat a diet to support a healthy biome, is an increase in inflammation and pathogenic/problematic growth of gram-positive gut bugs implicated. These changes often result in a trade of fat mass for muscle mass, reduction in exercise endurance, lower-quality sleep and decreased sexual desire, with simultaneous increases in stress, blood pressure and inflammation.
If we are able to leverage natural means of supporting crucial probiotic/bacteria levels, we can successfully help maintain vitality, agelessness, metabolism and sexual health.
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